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Seven states launch investigations in wake of Pennsylvania clergy sex abuse report

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Aug. 14, 2018. A Pennsylvania grand jury’s investigation of clergy sexual abuse identified more than 1,000 child victims. The people seated behind Shapiro included some of those affected by the clergy abuse. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(RNS) — Last month, after Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro unveiled a bombshell 1,300-page grand jury report detailing the alleged sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children in his state by hundreds of Catholic priests, American Catholics called for more investigations into church documents. Some even demanded the federal government step in.

Now law enforcement officials in at least seven states — New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, New Mexico, Florida, Missouri and Illinois — appear to be launching their own inquiries or reviews of Catholic dioceses, often focusing on what Shapiro called secret church files thought to contain decades of allegations of child sex abuse by priests.

On Thursday (Sept. 6), The Associated Press reported that New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood has subpoenaed all eight Roman Catholic dioceses in the state to investigate the church’s handling of sex abuse allegations. New York Archdiocese spokesperson Joseph Zwilling later confirmed to Religion News Service that that diocese has received the subpoena and is “ready and eager to work together with (the attorney general) in the investigation.”

Previously, the Diocese of Buffalo told RNS it “will cooperate with any investigation initiated by the New York State Attorney General or District Attorney,” and the Diocese of Albany invited the local district attorney to review its files on Thursday.

The New Jersey attorney general also announced on Thursday the creation of a new task force to investigate Catholic dioceses of New Jersey. According to NJ.com, the body will have subpoena power through a grand jury to compel testimony and demand documents from church officials.

“The (Pennsylvania) report revealed that sexual assaults on children – and efforts to cover up such assaults – were far more widespread in Pennsylvania than we ever thought possible,” read a statement by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal. “We owe it to the people of New Jersey to find out whether the same thing happened here. If it did, we will take action against those responsible.”

Due to differing legal systems from state to state, the investigations promise to be tailored to the varying powers of the states’ attorneys general and the states’ history of investigating abuse claims. Some states’ dioceses have already been investigated or have long-standing agreements with law enforcement.

Nebraska’s attorney general also sent a letter to the state’s three dioceses requesting records going back 40 years, to Jan. 1, 1978. When RNS contacted the Archdiocese of Omaha last week asking about a hypothetical inquiry, the diocese said it would “allow the attorney general to review our files.”

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas unveiled his office’s inquiry on Wednesday evening, sending 10-page letters “in contemplation of litigation” and legal demands to dioceses asking to review any church records related to past or present allegations of sexual abuse.

“(Balderas) has sent investigative demands to all three dioceses in New Mexico requiring full disclosure and full transparency,” David Carl, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, told RNS in an email. “The Catholic Church in New Mexico needs to fully reconcile and support survivors by revealing the magnitude of sexual abuse and subsequent cover up by church leaders in order to restore faith and trust in the community.”

One of those dioceses, the Diocese of Gallup, has already pledged to work with the attorney general.

“We look forward to cooperating with the Attorney General to ensure the safety of all the members of our diocese,” read a statement from the diocese.

Attorney Nicole Gorovsky speaks to reporters in St. Louis on Aug. 22, 2018, with clergy sex abuse advocate and victim David Clohessy by her side. Gorovsky, Clohessy and Mary Ellen Kruger spoke outside the St. Louis office of Attorney General Josh Hawley, calling for a wide-scale investigation of sex abuse by priests in Missouri. (AP Photo/Jim Salter)

In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi told RNS in August that “my statewide prosecutor is reaching out to all of the state attorneys to explore the matter.”

Bondi’s office declined to comment further this week, saying it would not remark on an ongoing matter. But at least one Florida diocese indicated that the effort has moved past the exploration phase and into a full inquiry.

“The Diocese of St. Petersburg has been contacted by the statewide prosecutor from the Attorney General and will cooperate with the inquiry,” a diocesan representative told RNS in an email.

The dioceses of Venice, St. Augustine, Pensacola-Tallahassee and Palm Beach also confirmed they would cooperate with any inquiry made by Florida law enforcement or the attorney general. A representative from the Archdiocese of Miami did not mention any ongoing investigations but said state attorneys had already reviewed all of the Miami and Broward County dioceses’ clergy files in 2002.

In Missouri, the Archdiocese of St. Louis voluntarily offered up its files on Aug. 23 for inspection by state Attorney General Josh Hawley. The proposal was unusual: The jurisdiction for child sex abuse crimes in Missouri technically lies with an elected local prosecutor.

But since the archdiocese offered up the files voluntarily, Hawley agreed, and he announced a formal “independent review” of the files by his office. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, another diocese in the state, promptly declared it would also “cooperate with any review the attorney general requests.”

The trend spread: A spokesperson for the Diocese of Jefferson City told RNS it is “working with the Missouri attorney general in having a review of our files, along with the other three Missouri arch/dioceses, which include St. Louis, Kansas City-St. Joseph and Springfield-Cape Girardeau.”

Victims of clergy sexual abuse, or their family members, react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Aug. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced plans last month to meet with the Archdiocese of Chicago and reach out to the other dioceses in Illinois, saying she “expect(s) the bishops will agree and cooperate fully.”

She said in a press release that if dioceses refused to comply, she would “work with states’ attorneys and law enforcement throughout Illinois to investigate.”

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said the probe was triggered by the Pennsylvania grand jury report.

“It really is in direct response to the report that named at least seven priests that had a direct connection to Illinois at some point,” the spokesperson said.

Madigan, who last year initiated the elimination of Illinois’ statute of limitations on child sex abuse crimes, also created a hotline specifically for allegations of clergy abuse.

The Archdiocese of Chicago said it plans to meet with the attorney general but claimed law enforcement officials reviewed its clergy files three times — in 1992, 2002 and 2015 — and noted that files detailing allegations of abuse by priests are already published on the archdiocese’s website.

“We have been contacted by the Illinois Attorney General and look forward to discussing our policies and procedures related to misconduct issues with her and her office,” read a statement from the archdiocese. “We have worked cooperatively with the Cook County and Lake County State’s Attorneys for many years.”

Other Illinois dioceses offered similar answers but declined to comment further for fear of interfering with the attorney general’s effort.

It remains to be seen whether any of the state-level inquiries will produce the kind of bombshell that came out of Pennsylvania, and it’s unclear what, if any, new allegations will surface.

But for now, the broader trend of investigating the American Catholic Church seems far from over.

(This story has been updated to include new reports of investigations in Nebraska, New York and New Jersey.)

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

31 Comments

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  • It is hard to imagine how varying state laws (or varyingly-motivated attorneys general) are helpful to resolving this problem. I guess we have to first come to grips with what kind of legal entities the churches or dioceses actually are.

  • Let’s hope this is a very comprehensive investigation. Let us also hope that others do the same. Since the RCC will not be forth coming with information, the only way is through legal means. I hope Massachusetts does the same.

  • Don’t just target the Catholics. Look at what happened in Australia and elsewhere. It started with the Catholics and eventually was found to infect multiple churches and organisations. We trusted too much. It needs to be a national enquiry.

  • Given the centralized hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, it’s not a surprise it is most in the cross-hairs. It has records of parish assignments, etc.

    That certainly doesn’t mean other churches are free from similar abuses. They may simply be more difficult to track.

  • State AG to bishop :
    AG – I want to see your records for 2018 –
    Bishop – there was a fire in that particular filing cabinet last March.
    AG – 1998 –
    B – they were on my desk & our pet Pomeranian ate them.
    AG – 1982 –
    B – Fr O’Mally was taking a bath upstairs, the tub cracked in half & the water flooded that filing cabinet & all the ink ran.
    AG – 2001 –
    B – lightning strike
    AG – 1977 –
    B – parrot crap*ed on them
    AG – 1990 –
    B – paper eating ant infestation bad that yr
    AG – 1995 –
    B – A/C malfunction – all records sucked into return register & were shredded.
    AG – 2011 –
    B – cheap Chinese steel filing cabinet rusted all contents to dust.
    AG – 1972 –
    B – mildew from tub cracking in half.
    AG – but the tub didn’t crack in half till 1982 !
    B – the lord works in strange and wonderful ways !

  • Perhaps a total liquidation of all diocese related properties the next time a bankruptcy is declared would change things along with hefty prison sentences for those who covered up the crimes.

  • Eight down, 42 to go.

    But what about them public school teachers? And all of th3 other people hiding behind faith?

  • What about them?

    Since it doesn’t fit your anti-Catholic rants, we never hear about them from you or the folks accompanying you with pitchforks and burning torches.

  • That would certainly have an effect but you can’t be sure whether it would be net good or net bad. We don’t want, for instance, for the Catholic parishioners (lacking their buildings) to run off into the waiting arms of “Political Evangelicals” where they soon become Mike Pence in megachurches. The Catholics as a whole are better for the country than the Protestants right now by some margin. Some of them are still leftish and we don’t want to assassinate that effect, do we?

  • I would like to see all the Catholic diocese open their records and deal with the past, bring the truth to light, and help those who were abused in the past to have a taste of justice. So much anger keeps being reignited among the laity as we deal with different states or dioceses at different points in time. And I can’t imagine this is good for those survivors of abuse who still carry that pain in silence. I can’t imagine this isn’t a thorn, a burr, a constant irritant to every bishop.

    I think we need to see the Church, today’s bishops, stand up and face the music. They will have to face the anger over what their predecessors did, what priests and bishops long retired or dead once did. But they are the ones sitting in the seat now. They want to claim the legacy of the good that was done by their predecessors. Well, they also have to claim and carry the legacy of the bad – the failures of those who came before. If they participated in covering up an abuse of a child, a seminarian, a vulnerable adult – while a seminarian, a priest, or as bishop – then they need to deal with it now and not pass it on to the next guy. No more pretense that it never happened or that some bishops did nothing but good. It was not perfect then just as it is not perfect now. And, there needs to be a truthful reporting of what was reported to the Vatican, to whom, when, and what the response was.

    Or not. Would all of this at once be worse?

  • I’m thinking that all victims of abuse in all churches (and other organizations) need to come forward ASAP and name names.
    Maybe it is time to clean up the country, and wash the dirty laundry!! MAGA!!

  • Since the faithful Catholics attending weekly and paying the bills will be calling the shots, not the pundits outside the Church who’ve been throwing rocks at it since the mid-60s, what is most likely to come out of it is a move towards orthodoxy.

    That is exactly what followed the Reformation in the Counter Reformation.

    I would expect part of that will include the expungement to the extent possible of remaining good old boy bureaucrats like Donald Wuerl, any heretofore undiscovered Rembert Weaklands, a tightening up of things in seminaries, and a long overdue “adios” to psychologists and psychiatrists and their “illness” excuses.

  • I support all these investigations. Previous inquiries — including the recent Pennsylvania grand jury, but also other investigations from around the globe — have clearly shown a common method, among all dioceses and orders, for handling these accusations. The hierarchs clearly operated out of a single playbook. It’s safe to assume It’s quite safe to assume every diocese and order has skeletons in their closets, just waiting to see the light of day. It’s entirely justified to dig into each and every one — and to dig deep. 

    Americans need to know what the Catholic Church has been up to. Now more than ever. 

    The problem lies in what happens after the digging is done, and all the skeletons have been hauled out of all the closets and placed under the glare of spotlights. What happens, then? What consequences will be suffered, by anyone, as a result of all that? Virtually nothing has happened to anyone as a result of the PA grand jury probe. A couple priests may be prosecuted … but that’s all. Other than that, no one has been fired or sanctioned in any meaningful way. And it looks as though that’s the way it will be. 

    So while the revelations are needed, what will they accomplish? I don’t think much will come of them. And there’s a big reason for that: The Church will resist, to its dying day, being held accountable. Unfortunately, despite the outrage that will be engendered, nothing will be done to break its resistance and force accountability on it. The main reason for that, in turn, is the Catholic laity. 

    Sure, there are lay Catholic groups agitating for accountability: SNAP, Voice of the Faithful, etc. There just aren’t enough of them. As I’ve said before, far too large a proportion of the Catholic laity just doesn’t see this as something that should be addressed or that they even need to involve themselves with. Many of them buy into the Church’s standing assertion that most accusers are just looking for money and have been egged on by greedy trial lawyers. Many also buy into the notion that the Catholic Church is really no different than any other organization; sure, it had some bad actors, but public-school teachers (for example) abuse kids, too, so what’s the big deal?* And many like their own priest, and maybe their bishop, and assume nothing untoward ever happened in their parish, so what need is there for them to do anything at all? 

    The need lies in the fact that the Church itself, and especially its hierarchs, must be broken. Sadly, there aren’t many ways to do that. Prosecutors might press charges, but that doesn’t happen often. It’s up to the Catholic laity to break the Church and force it to accept the consequences of its actions. They can do this, if they want to — using the power of the collection plate — but many of them don’t believe it’s their place to do so. The Church is the Church, after all, and the hierarchs know best. Right? Unfortunately they don’t, and they’ve proven it, consistently, around the world, and for decades at least. Even so, most lay Catholics are reticent about seizing control of their own Church and forcing changes on it. It might not seem very fair for them to withhold donations to their own parishes, especially if they assume their parishes have done nothing wrong — but the fact remains that this is the only way to starve the Church for money and coerce reforms. resignations, etc. They may also think it won’t be effective because the Church is wealthy. It is, but most dioceses and orders are asset-rich but cash-poor; those weekly donations are what keep them alive. Cutting off that cashflow would be damaging. 

    Really, this all depends on the Catholic laity and their courage … or lack thereof. More investigations could have the effect of forcing their hands and incentivizing action on their part, but if they don’t have the stomach to confront their own Church and force it to change, then no investigation will do any good. More’s the pity. 

    * Unlike abusive priests who just get shuffled off somewhere, and their supervisors who lock up the evidence in secret archives, abusive public-school teachers tend to get fired and go to jail, as do any enablers above them. Sure, some might be able to get away with something … but it’s a lot less common than it is in the Catholic Church. Imagine if the PA grand jury had delved into public schools there and revealed that 300 teachers had abused 1,000 kids: Heads would have rolled all over the place, and fast! That hasn’t happened in this case, however. 

  • it’s nice to see that the largest criminal organization in the world finally get some law enforcement scrutiny.

  • Yes, the filthy no-good United Nations really could use some Prison Time.

    (However, this thread is about the Catholic clergy. What is your opinion of them?).

  • oh, aren’t you hilarious! you know perfectly well that I am referring to the roman catholic church, wanker.

  • The systematic sexual abuse of children could have never been anything but common knowledge among the clergy. Instead of taking steps to protect children, the clergy circled the wagons and protected themselves. The solution here is to end the clergy, and you accomplish that by not giving them money.

  • LOL, I’m starting to think that you’re not a real black person. You’re a Russian troll, aren’t you?

  • Some historical context.

    ““There are cases of sexual abuse that come to light every day against a large number of members of the Catholic clergy. Unfortunately it’s not a matter of individual cases, but a collective moral crisis that perhaps the cultural history of humanity has never before known with such a frightening and disconcerting dimension. Numerous priests and religious have confessed. There’s no doubt that the thousands of cases which have come to the attention of the justice system represent only a small fraction of the true total, given that many molesters have been covered and hidden by the hierarchy.”

    It’s a speech of May 28, 1937, by Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945), Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich. This speech, which had a large international echo, was the apex of a campaign launched by the Nazi regime to discredit the Catholic Church by involving it in a scandal of pedophile priests.

    Two hundred and seventy-six religious and forty-nine diocesan priests were arrested in 1937. The arrests took place in all the German dioceses, in order to keep the scandals on the front pages of the newspapers.”

    http://www.cesnur.org/2010/mi-goebbels_en.html

  • The sexual abuse of children must have been obvious to the children’s own parents. Why did such parents keep forcing their children to return? Why did they not go to the police instantly and insist – and keep on insisting – that an investigation be launched into the adult accused by the child?

    Or was the fear of hell greater than the welfare of the children?

  • Make America great…again? Yet you are writing about many crimes that happened in the past. Do you think the USA was great when the churches were more powerful and their staff could get away with all sorts of offences? Surely you’re wanting America to clean up its act and make itself better than it used to be.

  • Are you excusing the parents for ignoring the calls for help from their own children? There is not the slightest excuse. The parents were abusing their children in the first place by inculcating religion into them and sending them to religious institutions such as churches or schools. Any parent who drills faith into their child is severely abusing them. Then, to add sexual or physical abuse by the staff of the institution – and you blame the “power of the church”, a power that is voluntarily given by the worshippers, the parents of the abused children.

  • It would be logical to expect that all the Popes including the current one who have spent their lives as catholic priests would have known what is going on and logic suggests they were either involved or turned a blind eye as well. This church is rotten to the core, close it down, the Catholic Church should be subject to law and prosecuted like a huge paedophile organisation.

  • I’m not excusing anything, but if the parents themselves are terrified of the supernatural, their behavior becomes a little more understandable. For a lot of these people never rise above magical thinking, and the church is highly skilled at instilling a sense of fear and guilt.

  • Hmmm. Yes, I know what you mean, as my own parents were fundamentalist evangelicals who drummed the fear of hell into me, especially my mother. However, have no doubt, if I had made the smallest complaint of abuse by someone at our church, she would have had his guts for garters. But I know there is an abyss between Protestants/Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, as the latter teach their followers that the church’s representatives are not to be questioned. That was one reason for the Reformation, as people wanted to think for themselves.

    But still, one might think that a parent, confronted by a son or daughter telling them that “the priest touched me where he shouldn’t” would have a little twinge of caring about their suffering. Many RC parents use the condom, for example, showing that the influence of the church is not complete. Ultimately, I will not accept this argument. A parent’s duty above all else is towards their child; knowing the magic priest is abusing his position and assaulting that child must be a trigger for action.

  • Shut down ALL religious institutions. They spread nothing but lies & false hope; and it’s not just the catholic church molesting our children.

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